Date: 12th December 2006 at 12:49pm
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Over the last few years, you would think that Martin O’Neil was, at the very least, some sort of deity. Whenever a big job has come up, O’Neil’s name has been there. Pundits love him and he’s been mentioned as one of Fergie’s successors whenever he decides to call it a day at United. He took time off his management career to nurse his wife through cancer, which is highly commendable, and his onscreen persona – part Woody Allen, part will o’ the wisp, part mad bloke from the pub – has endeared him to millions.

But do his management credentials back up this media idolisation? Is he a chip off the old Cloughie block, or is he, quite simply, just a good manager.

Martin O’Neil first came to prominance as a manager when he took Wycombe Wanderers into the Football league in 1993. A brief spell at Norwich City followed before landing at Leicester City in 1995. This was where he truly began to make his mark as a manager.

O’Neil took them into the Premiership on his first season in charge. For the next four seasons, they were in the top half of the table and they won two League Cup Finals. He left them in 2000 to take charge of Celtic. In his five seasons there, he won three League titles, three Scottish Cups, and a League Cup.

Due to his wife’s illness, he gave up his job at Celtic in 2005. By Auguest 2006, however, he was back at the helm at Villa.

Now, there can be no knocking his achievements at Leicester, even though they happened in an earlier era. There was no Russian money sloshing about the Premiership in those days and the gap between the top two divisions was closer.

His time at Celtic will be dominated by two factors – the paucity of the league up there and Henrik Larsson.

Frankly, if I took over a team with Larsson in it, I’d expect to win something. I’d expect to bring home the cup and the league in Scotland each and every season. The man, in his prime, was a fantastic striker. What a shame that his time in the two big leagues of Spain and England will have coincided with his decline.

Now, some people will mention the semi-final of the UEFA Cup that Celtic got to. Well, again, there are two things to consider. Firstly, Steve McClaren took a quite appalling Boro side to the final of the competition last season. That should be enough to discredit that achievement. Secondly, this confirms something about O’Neil. He’s better when he’s the underdog.

Look at the facts. He took a lowly club like Leicester and made them a good Premiership side.He took a Celtic side that had been dominated for several seasons by Rangers and made them top dogs again. In Europe, they were never going to be favourites.

In a top league, can he make a team a force to be recognised or will it always be a case of cup success?

This season, he’s made them hard to beat. But he hasn’t worked out how to make them win yet. There are too many draws. And let’s not forget that Villa’s squad has cost up to four times as much as it’s taken Bolton to assemble their present squad, even including the £8M for Anelka (Angel cost £9.5M!!!!)

Now to the glory-starved fans of Villa, this may seem to be a good start. It’s been 25 years or so since they have won anything meaningful. Yet with Randy Lerner’s money behind them (does anyone else think he looks like Peter Kay’s long-lost uncle?), expecations will soon start to rise. And what will the US backer think when results don’t go their way?

Can Martin O’Neil take Villa to the next level? Can they begin to compete over the next few years for the Premiership? My gut feel is no. Certainly not with O’Neil in charge. There might be cup success but the title is beyond Villa for the forseeable future.

So O’Neil’s tenure will be judged by apperances in Europe and League and FA Cup wins. If he fails to even deliver those, then times will get very, very hard for him.

Martin O’Neil is a good manager, not a great one. Villa fans shouldn’t expect any more of him.


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